Tuesday, November 21, 2017

BEAUTY AND THE BEAST – REVIEW OF YOUNG PEOPLE’S THEATRE PRODUCTION

James Karas

The fairy tale of Beauty and the Beast has been around for almost three hundred years in various forms. But Disney has generated a whole industry with its musical transformation of the tale as a cartoon on film and live on Broadway and around the world.

It is such a wonderful story one can hardly blame the Disney Corporation and others for relying on the tale for entertainment and moral instruction for young and old. Young People’s Theatre is offering the musical during November and December and if the matinee that I saw is an indication to full and enthusiastic audiences mostly of pre-teens.

The production has the virtues of a fine cast that can sing, dance, take care of comic business and get dramatic and scary as necessary. We follow the story enraptured in its telling as if we have never heard it or seen or before. But that is not all.
 
(L-R): Stewart Adam McKensy, Andrew Prashad, Emma Rudy and Celine Tsai, 
Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann
This is brilliant entertainment wrapped with easy-to digest morality lessons. Beauty (Celine Tsai) loves her father Maurice (Neil Foster) who is an outcast in the village; she rejects the empty-headed, egotistical and boorish Gaston (Aaron Ferguson) and she makes reading books and thinking appear attractive. She may be considered odd herself but she is a strong character who can stand up for herself. Count the number of virtues this young lady displays (if you need the fingers of only one hand, you better examine your values) and have a chat with your children

Examine the actions of the handsome Prince (Stewart Adam McKensy) who throws out an old beggar woman (Claire Rouleau) and is cursed by a spell becoming a Beast. There is a period of self-realization and transformation, a personal change that results in his  humanization. And McKensy has a marvelous voice – another virtue, no dount.

Damien Atkins as Lumiere and Andrew Prashad as Cogsworth are very funny and Mrs. Potts (Susan Henley) and Chip (Phoebe Hu) are both funny and charming.  

This is a fairy tale about change, growth, transformation and cogent lessons about tolerance, understanding and decency.

Who better to judge the quality of the production and the attendant issues of the fairy tale than my two Assistant Reviewers? Jordana (I am going to be 11 in January) and Emily, bright red lipstick applied with surgical precision, (I am going to be 10 in March).

Jordana liked and complimented the singing and as the daughter of a singer and participant in musicals herself, her opinion can hardly be gainsaid. Her assessment was that “Over all, it is a very good production” [sic]. She knew the story well enough to have drawn her own conclusions about its morality.
 
(L-R): Emma Rudy, Zorana Sadiq, Dale R. Miller, Damien Atkins, Aaron Ferguson, Claire Rouleau, 
Celine Tsai, Joel Schaefer and Jacob MacInnis, Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann
Asked about what she learned, Emily said tersely “you can’t judge a book by its cover.” Her favourite scene was when Beauty and Beast kissed.

But Emily had second thoughts about some things. “Would you have let the old beggar woman in your house if she knocked on your door?” she asked me.

“Of course” I replied a bit too quickly.
 
“But mommy tells me not to talk to strangers and never to let anyone in our house” she observed. Ah!

The YPT production is an edited version of the Broadway musical and runs for about 85 minutes that seems to be the right amount of time before the kids start getting restless. The set by Sue LePage consists of moveable panels that enable quick and efficient scene change.

The fact that I enjoyed the production is of secondary importance. Listen to the infallible and totally reliable opinions of my Associate Reviewers and take your children to see the show.              
___________
Beauty and the Beast  by Alan Menken (music), Howard Ashman and Tim Rice (lyrics), Linda Woolverton (book) directed by Allen MacInnis, continues until Dec. 31 at Young People’s Theatre, 165 Front St. East, Toronto, Ontario. www.youngpeoplestheatre.ca


Sunday, November 19, 2017

POISON – REVIEW OF COAL MINE THEATRE PRODUCTION

By James Karas

Poison is a play by Dutch playwright Lot Vekemans that is based on the simplest of plots and consisting almost entirely on the recollections of a couple that has been separated for nine years. Yet it is a moving, elegiac play in which most of the deep emotions, the grief and the pain that it expresses form an almost invisible undercurrent. We share the expressed and especially unexpressed pain of the couple in this superbly done production of a marvellous play.

Vekemans calls the two characters of her play He and She and they meet in a cemetery in Holland for a meeting with other people about what should be done with the people buried there because their remains may be poisoning the waterbed.

There is no meeting and He and She stay to talk to each other haltingly, with numerous pauses and embarrassment. There is considerable emotional tension, anger and attempts to conceal their true feelings. But the facts do come out, slowly and judiciously controlled by the playwright and in turn by the actors.
Fiona Highet and Ted Dykstra in Poison. Photo: DAHLIA KATZ  
He left her on New Year’s Eve 1999, the eve of the millennium at a precise hour and drove away. He is now living in France and went back to Holland for the meeting. Spoiler alert. The pain that joins them is the death of their son who was killed in an accident, right in front of his mother’s eyes. The pain is unbearable.

There are recriminations, attempts to understand why he left her and why she did nothing to stop him. Attempts and some success at sharing the grief and the pain, and attempts at reconciliation or at bridging the emotional gap are made but nothing really works.

Ted Dykstra plays He and Fiona Highet is She. Highet is a tall woman with expressive eyes and a voice that intones her complex emotions about her child, her separation, her anger and her loneliness. It is a beautiful performances that draws us into her beauty and agony.

Dykstra, with his tousled hair looks more like a kid than an adult. He stands accused of abandoning his wife, of not having the depth of feeling and sorrow that she feels and of moving on with his life. It is not true but he in fact has moved on with his life. He reaches out to her and she is almost ready to reach back until she is crushed by him again. He is married and expecting a child.

This beautifully moving play is done in the small playing area of the Coal Mine Theatre, in front of a bare white wall, some white plastic chairs and a water cooler designed by Patrick Lavender. Director Peter Pasyk controls the revelations and the emotional levels of the play to almost subliminal levels. The audience feels them more acutely that way.
A moving and splendid night at the theatre.              
______

Poison by Lot Vekemans translated by Rina Vergano continues until December 3, 2017 at the Coal Mine Theatre, 1454 Danforth Ave. Toronto, M4J 1N4. www.coalminetheatre.com

Friday, November 17, 2017

DAUGHTER – REVIEW OF ADAM LAZARUS’ PERFORMANCE AT THEATRE CENTRE

Reviewed by James Karas

Adam Lazarus, for those who don’t know him, is a talented man of the theatre including an outstanding stand-up comic. His comedy is witty, physical, raunchy, scatological and moving. He brings all those traits to his one-man show Daughter that he wrote and co-created with Ann-Marie Kerr, Jivesh Parasram and Melissa D’Agostino. Kerr directs the performance.

For Daughter, Lazarus adopts the character of a lower class Jew and starts with a description of playing with his six-year old daughter. He dances and she “dances” with him; she is clever, delightful and wonderful. Then he pushes her hard into her bed and we start with his neuroses, doubts and other incidents of his life.

He covers a lot of ground. He describes incidents like losing his virginity, drinking urine. Eating (sort of) feces, playing an injurious and mean-spirited prank on an unattractive girl, having affairs, having sex with hookers and contracting gonorrhea and protecting his daughter.

The longest segment is his description of preparing for the birth of his daughter, the endless labour and her actual birth.

Like some chic and modern parents, Adam and his wife decide to deliver their child using the system of hypno-birthing. The system as described by Lazarus uses a lot of very funny psychobabble and he as the nervous father with his camping equipment lives through it and entertains us.
 

 Adam Lazarus. Photo: John Lauener

His daughter refuses to exit and the doctors recommend Caesarian delivery. His wife starts doing yoga exercises between labour pains (which Lazarus describes quite graphically) and between her pains and fainting, the child is turned around. No need for C section.

The urine in the cup marked juice and the feces placed in a bowl using an ice cream scooper and then throwing chocolate sprinkles in top is quite hilarious.

The story of the unattractive girl who is supposed to be frightened out her wits as someone jumps out of a freezer in her basement has unpleasant consequences as she ends up in the hospital for a week with an asthma attack.

You get about seventy minutes of varied routines with his daughter as the unifying theme. It is all done on an empty stage with a stool and a couple of minor props.

Lazarus had the youthful audience in the palm of his hand throughout the performance. He could evoke a laugh by a look, a movement or a line in a way that most performers must dream about.
________

Daughter, written and performed by Adam Lazarus in a coproduction by The Theatre Centre, Quip Take with Pandemic Theatre, continues until November 19, 2017 at The Theatre Centre, 1115 Queen St. West, Toronto, Ontario. www.theatrecentre.org. 416 538-0988


Thursday, November 16, 2017

THE GOAT OR WHO IS SYLVIA – REVIEW OF SOULPEPEPR PRODUCTION OF ALBEE’S PLAY

James Karas

Happy families are all alike, according to Leo Tolstoy, but each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way. Take the Gray family. At age 50, Martin is a successful architect who has won the Nobel Prize equivalent in his field and has been chosen to design The World City, a two-hundred billion project in the wheat fields of the Middle West. His world success is matched by his happy home life. He is married to Stevie who is beautiful, articulate and in short a dream wife. They are deeply in love with each other and completely faithful. They have a gay son which may or may not be an issue for them but everything about the Grays’ success is practically mythical.

But there is a flaw in the ointment. A flaw that Albee wants us to know goes beyond a passing mortal sin like infidelity or one of the frequently encountered problems in a marriage. The parenthetical subtitle of the play is “Notes towards the definition of tragedy.” Early in the play Martin refers to the Eumenides as pursuing someone relentlessly. They are the furies of vengeance in Greek tragedy who pursue most famously Orestes for the killing his father.
 

  Raquel Duffy and Albert Schultz, photo: Cylla Von Tiedemann

The flaw in the ideal marriage of the Grays is that Martin is in love with a goat. Albee raises the admittedly carnal relationship to something spiritual and out of the control of Martin. If you want to be grandiloquent, it may refer to Aristotle’s idea hamartia, a fatal flaw or an error in a character that leads to a reversal of fortune and a tragic end.

Alan Dilworth directs the current Soulpepper production which has some issues but brings much of the drama out. Rquel Duffy gives a bravura performance as Stevie, Martin’s wife who understandably freaks out when he gives her a detailed description of his physical and spiritual relationship with the goat Sylvia. Stevie, always articulate, frequently witty, goes from shock to rage to avenging fury punctuated with agony at the incomprehensible treachery that she faces. It is a tremendous range for an actress to cover and Duffy does it all. From disbelief, to sarcastic remarks to a heart-wrenching howl, Duffy gives a stunning performance.
 Albert Schultz and Derek Boyes, photo: Cylla Von Tiedemann
Albert Schultz as Martin is fine in the lighter portions of the play but he fails to rise to the tragic dimension demanded of the character. His reaction and his howl as he is destroyed by the avenging fury fails to reach the heights that we hope to see.

Derek Boyes plays Ross, the friend of the family who tells Stevie what her husband has done. Paolo Santalucia plays Billy, the Grays’ teenage son who has his own sexual problems but with his father madly in love with a goat there is not much room to examine them. Boyes and Santatlucia give good performances in their respective roles.
Dilworth does a good job in directing a difficult play but there seems to be a lack of disciplined acting in some of the scenes. Some more intonation in some scenes, a slower pace in others may be of minor nature but it would be nice to have them.

The set by Lorenzo Savoini shows a brightly lit sitting room with a couch, a coffee table and some furniture pieces that evoke the home of a well-off modern house.       
 ________________

The Goat or Who is Sylvia? by Edward Albee continues until November 18, 2017 at the Young Centre for the Performing Arts, 50 Tank House Lane, Toronto, Ontario M5A 3C4. www.soulpepper.ca

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

KING CHARLES III - REVIEW OF ARTS THEATRE PRODUCTION IN VANCOUVER

James Karas

Alas, poor Charles, we know thee well. Thou hast the distinction of being the longest serving Prince of Wales and were married to Diana, Princess of Wales, beautiful, not too bright and beloved of the people. You are not the sharpest knife in the royal drawer either and with your stiff bearing, floppy ears and frequent overextensions of your limited intellectual prowess, you earned our neglect of you.

But not forever. Mike Bartlett has paid you the compliment of writing a futuristic play set in the imaginary, if not too far off future, when you are King Charles III. The programme cover promises that this is a “JOVIAL POLITICAL SATIRE” and we believe it.
 The Queen is dead and the cast of King Charles III are there. Photo by David Cooper.
As it must, King Charles III opens with the funeral of Queen Elizabeth II and the accession of Prince Charles to the throne. The new king is asked to perform one of his traditional roles that of signing his assent to legislation passed by parliament. The new law purports to limit the freedom of the press. The king, who is supposed to be a serious, principled and an intelligent monarch, refuses to give his assent and thus precipitates a serious constitutional crisis. Not too many laughs so far.

The Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition state that the King has no right to refuse to sign the legislation and the king is just as adamant that he will not do it. How will we get out of this quandary?

We have a subplot involving   Prince Harry who mixes with the people, falls in love with a commoner whose naked-in-bed photos are available for publication and who does her best to appear obnoxious. He wants to give up everything and live with her like a normal worker. In other words he takes Windsor family thickness some distance down from the low norm.

Bartlett’s play creaks on with an almost empty tank as he tries to manufacture material to keep it chugging along. Jovial political satire? Let me know if you find any. This is a serious constitutional and political impasse that could dispatch the British monarchy to the dustbin of history. Caution: spoiler. The king makes the crisis worse by using an ancient right of his to dissolve parliament. There is violence in the streets, hints of military takeover, perhaps civil war and our concern for the outcome causes our blood pressure to soar downwards.

The play may be better than it seemed in this production. The Stanley Industrial Alliance Stage’s acoustics made some of the actors sound as if they spoke in a tunnel. Some of them failed to enunciate or speak loudly enough and that is not a great recommendation.

Ted Cole’s King Charles III who gives the initial impression of being smart and principled turns out to be a weakling who commands neither authority nor regal majesty. But Bartlett tells us that he is also a troubled and articulate workaholic We agree with his position on the restriction of press freedom but he does not convince us. He reminded me of Shakespeare’s Richard II who took his anointment seriously and thought that he was appointed by God.

Simon Webb as Prime Minister Evans is a caricature of a leftist with his ill-fitting grey suit and bow tie and boorish manners. Christine Wiles as the Leader of the Opposition is a classic politician who talks from both sides of her mouth without stretching a muscle.

Charles Rice with his rumbling voice plays the tall Prince William but we could have done with more consistent enunciation. Katherine Gauthier’s Kate is a clever, touchy-feely and manipulative feminist.
 
Ted Cole and Gwynyth Walsh in King Charles III. Photo by David Cooper.
Charlie Gallant’s Prince Harry in a red wig and a plebeian Jess (Agnes Tong) is a caricature of the dumb royal as is Jess of the common people.

The play has numerous Shakespearean  overtones, none so bizarre as the appearance of a Ghost (Lauren Bowler). This is the ghost of Diana who is very corporeal as she hugs and kisses her son William and Charles. She mysteriously tells both of them that they will be the greatest kings ever. Jovial satire, eh?

Gwynyth Walsh appears as Camilla wearing a ridiculous hat in the first scene but settles down to being a supportive wife of the hapless Charles.

The play is done on an empty stage designed by Kevin McAllister dominated by a large copper globe with a cross on top symbolizing the crown.

Kevin Bennett expresses his enthusiasm for the play in the programme but it may have seemed better in his imagination than he has brought on the stage. The play may have nuggets of humour and appear less sluggish in a different production. As it is in this production, it makes for a bad night at the theatre.
___________
King Charles III by Mike Bartlett, in a production by Arts Club Theatre Company, continues until November 19, 2017 at the Stanley Industrial Alliance Stage, 2750 Granville St. Vancouver, B.C.   

Thursday, November 9, 2017

THE MAGIC FLUTE - REVIEW OF LIVE FROM THE MET BROADCAST

James Karas

Julie Taymor’s production of The Magic Flute for The Metropolitan Opera which was transmitted worldwide on October 14, 2017 tries to be a magical, fantastic staging with extensive use of puppets and some high tech. Many of the things she does smack of an overreaching attempt to entertain children and some of the other aspects of the production with the emphasis on darkness made the production seem heavy-footed.

Taymor, in addition to directing, also designed the costumes and, with Michael Curry, she designed the puppets. In other words this is a Julie Taymor production through and through. It premiered in 2004 and seems to have staying power.

 Charles Castronovo as Tamino in Mozart's "Die Zauberflöte." 
Photo: Richard Termine/Metropolitan Opera
The use of puppets and the necessary presence of puppeteers was so extensive that I found it rather tiresome. Some of it was effective, like the huge dragon which threatens Tamino in the opening scene. The Three Ladies (soprano Wendt Bryn Harmer, mezzo Sarah Mesko and mezzo Tamara Mumford) appear dressed in black with blackened faces sporting puppet heads (or are they skulls) on their heads. The heads can also be held in their hands.

The Three Spirits are all white in contrast to the Three Ladies, I suppose. They have spiked white hair, white underwear that could be diapers and white beards that reach to below their knees. They commute on the back of a goose or perhaps the skeleton of a goose. When the Queen of the Night sings her famous aria, there are banners (her head gear) twirling around her head. She hits her high notes and gets rousing approval from the audience and should be left to sing without extraneous tricks.

There are numerous birds, monsters, bears and other creatures that fly around the stage. Even so, the emphasis is on darkness which no doubt is meant to make the emergence into light by our hero Tamino and heroine Pamina all the more pleasant. It does not.

All is fair in love and opera productions but it does no harm to recall that The Magic Flute is a play with songs written for the popular theatre. Yes, there is a Masonic connection for those who can discern it or care about it but emphasizing the darkness and the progression towards virtue and light in conjunction with generous use of presumably more entertaining puppets takes away from the joy of the opera that is not lifted by those ubiquitous puppets.

A scene from  Mozart's "Die Zauberflöte." Photo: Richard Termine/Metropolitan Opera
The makeup is something else. Tamino and Pamina are about the only ones who have not been painted over as if they are from another dimension.

The underlying ideas of living for love, rejecting hatred and vengeance, espousing high morals and the idea of forgiveness are not virtues monopolized by the Masons. The people who first saw the play with songs on September 30, 1791 in the Theater auf der Wieden in suburban Vienna probably got all the virtues that are promulgated and all the low humour and enjoyed the songs.

If the use of puppets is intended to attract and entertain children, why is the production sung in German? How many children (and adults) can enjoy the low comedy while trying to read the subtitles? Even if you know the opera well, humour in subtitles does not come out well. There is no reason for The Magic Flute to be done in German except snobbery.

The production has a fine cast that is helped by James Levine conducting the Met orchestra. He is a local hero, and deservedly so, who has molded the Met orchestra into a superb ensemble.

Tenor Charles Castronovo is the romantic (love at first sight of her portrait) prince who is determined to go through fire, water, to keep quiet when told to, and do all to qualify for the title “mensch” and marry Pamina. Castronovo is heroically convincing both vocally and theatrically. Soprano Golda Schultz is the lovely, delicate and patient Pamina who sings beautifully and asserts herself. She deserves Tamino.

Baritone Markus Werba has a comic sense and a superb voice for the bird catcher Papageno but he is hampered by speaking in a foreign language. Taymor treats the would-be Harvey Weinstein Monostatos (Greg Fedderly) like a clown. He has the usual gobs of makeup and his real intentions towards Pamina are underplayed, to put it politely.
     _____

The Magic Flute by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart with libretto by Emanuel Schikaneder was transmitted Live in HD from the Metropolitan Opera on October 14, 2017 at the Cineplex VIP Don Mills Shops at Don Mills, 12 Marie Labatte Road, Toronto Ontario M3C 0H9 and other theatres. Encores will be shown on November 11, 27, 29 and December 10 and 16, 2017 at various theatres. For more information: www.cineplex.com/events

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

TITLE AND DEED – REVIEW OF NIGHTFALL THEATRICS PRODUCTION

James Karas

Title and Deed is a one-man show now playing in the Tarragon Theatre Workspace in a production by Nightfall Theatrics. It is an interesting monologue, difficult to follow and not amenable to logical analysis.

Title is the legal right to own property and deed is the evidence of your title. That’s clear enough.

In the small Workplace with about a dozen spectators, Christopher Staunton delivers his one hour and ten minute monologue that covers a myriad of points that are not easy to follow and even harder to recall. The point is that this is impressionistic theatre and what matters is the image that author Will Eno and Stanton want to leave us with.

Stanton comes to the playing area and tells us that he going through customs and visiting for pleasure. Presumably he is coming “here” to our country from another country. We have similarities and differences with his country but we are never sure what they are.

There are philosophical musings, childhood memories general comments about existence. The subject is changed quickly and seamlessly. The performer has a bag in which he carries a stick and an empty lunch box. Protection and nourishment? Perhaps.

Stanton deserves a standing ovation for memorizing he script alone. He deserves credit for performing the confusing script in which he goes through a number of emotions and gives us some humour.

Aside from that I cannot say I got much more out of the play.
______________________

Title and Deed by Will Eno played in the Tarragon Theatre Workspace, 30 Bridgman Ave. Toronto, Ontario between September 19 and October 8, 2017 in a production by Nightfall Theatrics. This review is posted disgustingly late. Mea culpa.

THE MARRIAGE OF FIGARO – REVIEW OF OPERA ATELIER PRODUCTION

Reviewed by James Karas

In a recent survey conducted by BBC Music Magazine “172 of the world’s finest opera singers” (according to BBC) chose The Marriage of Figaro as the greatest opera ever written.  Opera Atelier was not waiting for a survey to be  persuaded to revive its 2010 production of The Marriage of Figaro but no one can possibly complain that it did.

Director Marshall Pynkoski has chosen to produce the opera in English and use Jeremy Sams’ fluid and colloquial translation. Excellent choices. Many directors move the date of an opera forward from today to some futuristic, robotic era. Pynkoski moves The Marriage back to the era and distinctive style of commedia dell’arte. The end  result is an outstanding and thoroughly enjoyable night at the opera.
 
Peggy Kriha Dye (Countess Almaviva) and Stephen Hegedus (Count Almaviva). Photo by Bruce Zinger.
Choosing the commedia dell’arte style has many advantages. It allows for comic business, including some slapstick that provides healthy laughter. The elegant costumes by Martha Mann and colourful sets by Gerard Gauci are perfect accompaniments for Jeannette Lajeunesse Zingg’s choreography. Thus we get the best of both worlds: the comic business of commedia dell’arte and the grace and sophistication of baroque.

Opera in English is still the exception and there are good reasons for being reluctant to indulge in full-scale Anglicized libretti. Jeremy Sams’ translation does illustrate some of the issues. The open vowels of “La vendetta” and the rounded o’s of “Dove sono” are not available in the English translation but some of the awkwardness we feel may be simply a matter of habit. If we heard The Marriage of Figaro, say, twenty times in Italian, hearing it in English may sound stranger than it really is. Try the reverse.  

Pynkoski has assembled a cast that can act and sing. Start with the heroes of the piece. Bass-baritone Douglas Williams as Figaro has to be wily, smart (but not as smart as his fiancée Susanna) and display vocal and physical agility. Williams delivers a delightful Figaro.

Soprano Mireille Asselin’s Susanna has intuitive intelligence, splendid vocal delivery and a marvelous comic delineation of the clever servant. Soprano Peggy Kriha Dye gives us a mature and moving Countess who married for love and lives with the Count’s gross infidelity. She sings her lament for lost love “Porgi, amor” (“Hear my prayer, humbly I beg you”) and “Dove Sono” (“I remember his love so tender”) where memory of past happiness and hopes for future joy and love blend gorgeously. I could have done with a bit less movement in the latter aria but that’s just quibbling.

Bass-baritone Stephen Hegedus’s Count Almaviva is a jealous, quick-tempered and lithe Lothario for whom a skirt is a target and fidelity is a nuisance. We enjoy his singing and shenanigans and find extra pleasure in his ultimate comeuppance which provides a scene of forgiveness and redemption that becomes a moment of grace and enchantment.
 
Mireille Asselin (Susanna) and Douglas Williams (Figaro). Photo by Bruce Zinger.
Mezzo-soprano Mireille Lebel was full of hormonal energy as Cherubino. Laura Pudwell as Marcellina, Gustav Andreassen as Bartolo, Olivier Laquerre as Antonio and Christopher Enns as Basilio and Don Curio delivered the comedy and singing assigned to them unfailingly. And Grace Lee as barbarian gets to sing the aria “I have lost it, I am so stupid” very effectively.

The Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra does its usual fine work under the baton of David Fallis.

A few words to dampen your enthusiasm about The Marriage of Figaro being chosen as the greatest opera ever. La Boheme came in second and Tosca placed sixth. Verdi sneaked in ninth place with Otello and Wagner made the grade with Tristan und Isolde in tenth place. Chacun à son goût, as they say, but those are head-scratching choices by any operatic measuring stick.

In any event, the highest accolade one can pay to Opera Atelier’s production of The Marriage of Figaro is that it is an expression of civilization. Kenneth Clark in his famous series Civilization said that he could not give a definition of civilization but he recognized it when he saw it. You may not be able to define a stunning and wonderful opera production but when you see this Marriage of Figaro you will recognize it. And it is civilized. 
___________
The Marriage of Figaro  by W. A. Mozart, presented by Opera Atelier, opened on October 26 and will until November 4, 2017 at the Elgin Theatre, 189 Yonge Street, Toronto. www.operaatelier.com

Saturday, October 21, 2017

OTHER SIDE OF THE GAME – REVIEW OF NEW PLAY BY AMANDA PARRIS

Other Side of the Game is a new play by Amanda Parris. It is her first play and it deals with the plight of blacks especially in Toronto. There is a great deal to cheer about a first play by a Canadian that examines the sorry plight of a segment of Canada’s population.

The play opens on a scene in front of a high chain link fence where five people are sitting on folding chairs. They say nothing for a few seconds, then they scream simultaneously or individually, yawn, fidget and show signs of frustration. They are in the waiting room of a jail waiting to see a prisoner and they face the faceless and rude bureaucrat who corrals or is supposed to corral them to the visiting area. Corral may not do justice to the description of the way they are treated. The scene lasts longer than it needs to but the message is unmistakable.
 
Ryan Rosery, Virgilia Griffith, Ordena Stephens-Thompson, 
Shakura Dickson, Peter Bailey - photo by Dahlia Katz
Other Side has a cast of five (three men and two women) and they each play two roles. There are two parallel plots and the actors change from one role to the other seamlessly and at times confusingly. I had difficulty following the two plots all the time.

Beverly (Shakura Dickson), a bright-eyed girl form Halifax, wants to join the movement. She meets Khalil (Ryan Rosery) and Akilah (Virginia Griffin) who grill her about her knowledge about the issue.

We quickly find out that these people are involved in starting a revolution. Is it Trotskyite or Leninist, we are not sure, but they are talking the language if not the rant of a bygone era when people advocated the uprising of the proletariat against capitalism. They are erudite and knowledgeable and can put a policeman in his place by quoting case law to her face.

We know or think we know something about racism and mistreatment of blacks and other minorities. The behaviour of the police department of “tolerant” Toronto towards blacks is frequently nothing short of disgraceful and it is continuing. That is one small example of what is happening in a fair city on our fair country.

Parris thus attacks a grand subject and as I said deserves credit for attempting to deal with it. Unfortunately what we get is a bit of muddle. There is no reasonable daycare for a black mother’s child. There is no reasonable daycare for anyone making low wages. The young man who did not finish high school and has a minor criminal record cannot get a job because of racism. Touché.
Virgilia Griffith, Shakura Dickson 2 - photo by Dahlia Katz
Parris mixes the political with the domestic and throws in a love interest but the whole thing lacks focus and appears like a number of short scenes that lead nowhere.

Director Nigel Shawn Williams tries hard to bring the whole thing together and gets good performances from the five actors. Peter Bailey plays Elder who has been around and knows the mechanics and the politics of protest. But he does have a shortcoming: he is living with a white woman. He also plays Winston, a shady character in the community.

Virginia Griffith is the tough and savvy member of the movement and a distraught mother trying to raise a child. Ordena Stephens-Thompson plays the cop and the social worker. She is black and is abusing blacks. The revolution needs to convince its natural followers to follow it, it seems.

People are arrested, kept in pre-trial custody, and sent to jail with no mention of what offence they committed. Canada may have faults, but no one is kept in custody without cause and no one is jailed without a charge and a conviction after a trial. Parris rides roughshod over all details and the idea of a few Marxists of whatever shade overthrowing everything struck me as jaded and hollow.
___________
Other Side of the Game by Amanda Parris in a co-production by Cahoots Theatre and Obsidian Theatre opened on October 18 and continues at Aki Studio, Native Earth Performing Arts, 585 Dundas St. East, Toronto, Ont. 

Thursday, October 19, 2017

THE ELIXIR OF LOVE – REVIEW OF 2017 CANADIAN OPERA COMPANY PRODUCTION

James Karas

The Canadian Opera Company serves us a delightful, delectable and delicious Elixir of Love with a strong Canadian flavor, scrumptious singing and most of it done by Canadians. More about the last bit further down.

Donizetti’s enchanting comedy requires five singers who must create and exude a sense of innocence, an atmosphere of geniality and a pleasant community that exists mostly in our imagination. Where can you find a place like that? Easy. Visit a small, rural town in southern Ontario on a sunny day before World War I. That is where director James Robinson sets this production. It all started in a small town in the United States but, there being no travel bans yet, they all moved to the friendlier realm of Canada. Well, Robinson changed the locale to Ontario.    
 
Simone Osborne as Adina (at left) with Gordon Bintner as Belcore 
and Andrew Haji as Nemorino (at right). Photo: Michael Cooper
Nemorino (Andrew Haji) has an ice cream truck and consumes what he sells with considerable generosity. But he is an innocent, lovable bumpkin who is love-struck with the very pretty Adina. His profession and girth, do not give him a head start in the race for Adina’s heart. Haji has a dulcet, light tenor voice and he conveys the innocence, ardour and total lovability of Nemorino perfectly.

Adina is rich, beautiful and flirtatious, the type of girl that any red-blooded Ontarian from Dundalk to Dorset would give up his acreage for. Soprano Simone Osborne embodies all the qualities we want to see in Adina and gives her an agile, honeyed voice that is an aural delight.

Sergeant Belcore is a swaggering, mustachioed recruiting officer in a well-pressed uniform that would burst at the seams if his ego were any bigger. Baritone Gordon Bintner’s voice resonates with confidence and we (almost) forgive Adina for falling for the cad.

Baritone Andrew Shore takes on the role of the quack Dr. Dulcamara who sells an elixir guaranteed to get you any woman. It is a fine comic role and Shore does a very good job in that regard. Unfortunately, he was in poor vocal form on the date that I saw the production (October 17), especially at the beginning. He was better near the end.

Soprano Laura Eberwein displayed her beautiful voice in the relatively small role of Giannetta and no doubt we will be seeing much more of her in the future.
 Andrew Haji as Nemorino in the The Elixir of Love, 2017, photo: Michael Cooper
The opera is set, as I said, in a small town in Ontario. The set (designed by Allen Moyer) focuses on the town’s bandstand, decorated with banners and flags. The town people are dressed in festive attire of the period, the sun is shining and life is good. Is it July 1, 1914? We have a cheerful, happy atmosphere with the townspeople (the marvelous COC Chorus) providing a social milieu and vocal pleasure.

Yves Abel conducts the COC Orchestra.

One does not usually make too much fuss about the origins of the cast except perhaps to add, say, Russian or America before a singer’s name. There is a difference here. Most of the cast is young and Canadian. In fact the conductor and four of the five singers (Andrew Shore s the exception) are young Canadians. This is not pointless flag waving. It is a round of applause to the COC and in general for Canada for nurturing a crop of musical talent especially in opera, a form of entertainment that is struggling to maintain and increase its fan base and is usually dominated by non-Canadians.

The Elixir of Love presents Canada on the operatic stage in every respect and does a damn good job.
_________________

The Elixir of Love by Gaetano Donizetti (music) and Felice Romani (libretto), opened on October 11 and will be performed eight times until November 4, 2017 on various dates at the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts, 145 Queen Street West, Toronto, Ontario. Tel:  416-363-6671. www.coc.ca

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

THE CURIOUS INCIDENT OF THE DOG IN THE NIGHT-TIME – REVIEW

Reviewed by James Karas

At the end of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, Christopher lists his accomplishments and asks if now he can do anything. The question is not answered as the lights go off.

Christopher, brilliantly played by Joshua Jenkins, is an autistic child and the protagonist in Mark Haddon’s 2004 novel which has been adapted for the stage by Simon Stephens and is now playing at The Princess of Wales Theatre. Haddon tries to enter into the mind of Christopher and tell us his story through his autistic eyes. We see the extraordinary behaviour caused by autism, we witness the workings of a brilliant mind in the domestic life of his parents and of the murder mystery that Christopher is trying to solve and about which he has written. It is an astonishing, moving, eye-opening glimpse into the fantasies, phantasmagoria, achievements and suffering of Christopher, of his treatment by the outside world and of the lives of his parents who must endure his irrational conduct.
 

 Joshua Jenkins (Christopher) and company - Curious Incident International Tour. Photo: Brinkhoff/Mögenburg

Christopher throws tantrums, does not want to be touched, is afraid of certain colours, cannot abide loud sounds or crowds, is obsessively literal-minded and, in short, he would test the patience of a saint, assuming that the latter can endure the unendurable.

In the opening scene we discover Christopher sitting beside a dog. It is Wellington, his neighbor Mrs. Shear’s (Amanda Posener) dog and someone killed it by sticking a pitchfork in its side. He is accused of killing the dog and arrested after attacking a policeman.        

Against his father’s orders, Christopher begins his detective work to find out who killed Wellington. He does some calculations and in the end does make the shocking discovery of who killed the poor creature.

But that is only a part of the story. Christopher has a friend and mentor called Siobhan (Julie Hales) who understands his behavior and shows him ways of dealing with his idiosyncrasies.  His father (David Michaels) is patient but has limited insight into his son’s behavior. His mother (Emma Beattie) could not endure it and she left her husband and her son and ran off with another man. There is a dramatic story about her death and Christopher’s discovery of the truth.

Intermingled with his irrational and ultra-rational behaviour, Christopher shows signs of brilliance. He has a great memory and a phenomenal aptitude for mathematics. He solves equations that would stump most mortals.
 
Joshua Jenkins (Christopher) and company. Photo: Brinkhoff/Mögenburg
The play, like the novel, is told in the first person by Christopher and he dominates the production. Jenkins gives a superb performance as a troubled youth, a type of performance that should find itself in the top list of awards for acting. The play has a considerable number of characters as the scene changes from Christopher’s house, to the neighborhood, to his school, the train station and the trip to London as well as life with his mother. Most of the actors play several parts and there are some very quick scene changes. The individual and ensemble performances are outstanding as is the work of director Marianne Elliott.

The set by designer Bunny Christie, the lighting by Paule Constable and the video designs by Finn Ross capture the inner world of Christopher and his relationship with reality as he sees it.      

Near the end of the play Christopher is given a dog, a real dog, and he establishes an emotional link with it. He then enumerates his achievements including going to London, solving the mystery of who killed Wellington, getting an A in an advanced mathematics test and writing the book on which this great night at the theatre is based.
__________

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time by Simon Stephens  based on the novel by Mark Haddon opened on October 15 and will play until November 19, 2017 at the Princess of Wales Theatre, 300 King St. West, Toronto, Ontario. www.mirvish.com

Sunday, October 15, 2017

BELLO – REVIEW OF YOUNG PEOPLE’S THEATRE PRODUCTION

Reviewed by James Karas

Vern Thiessen’s Bello is a moving, scary and entertaining play playing at the Young People’s Theatre in a fine production directed by Mieko Ouchi. You get two sources of entertainment: the audience of mostly seven-year olds and the performers of the play. 

Thiessen weaves two stories into his play. The first is about a little boy named Bern whose parents die and he goes to live with an aunt and uncle who have a large family. They live on a farm before electricity or cars or telephones were discovered. The children have to walk five kilometers to school and they all have chores like watering the horses, milking the cows and feeding the chickens. Bern’s cousin Peter is nasty to him and he lives in fear.
 
Pictured (L-R): Gabriel Gagnon, Nicole St. Martin and Morgan Yamada; Production Design by Patrick Beagan 
 Photo by Ali Sultani.
On the way to school, they see an abandoned barn which is occupied by a mysterious person. Is it an old woman, a witch or what? She is very scary.

Three actors, Gabriel Gagnon, Nicole St. Martin and Morgan Yamada, represent all the characters in the play with consummate ability and speedy changes in roles. The actors are grownups but they manage to be convincing in all roles that they take on to the delight of the audience. Gagnon and Yamada play Bern and Peter respectively, the main characters, but they take other parts as well.

Bern gets lost in a blizzard on the way home from school and he runs into the mysterious and very scary person in the abandoned barn.

The play lasts about fifty minutes and it is done at a brisk pace perfectly apt for the youthful audience. The play is billed as being appropriate for ages 6 to 9 but I think that’s just a guideline.

Everything is done some sheets, several boxes and an active imagination. Patrick Beagan is the Production Designer.

The other source of entertainment, as I said, is the audience of youngsters who are following attentively and are instant theatre reviewers. No waiting for the end of the play for them. “That is funny,” “that is disgusting” and “that was weird” are just of the few comments that were shouted out for everyone to take heed of audience reactions.
Morgan Yamada, Nicole St. Martin and Gabriel Gagnon; Production Design by Patrick Beagan 
Photo by Ali Sultani.
 The story is touching with flashes of humour and of course a message about fear, intolerance and a mystery behind the person in the abandoned barn. We hear of Bello, a little boy after whom the play in named, we see reconciliation, tolerance and the establishment of order and the maturing of the young.

I had two Visiting Associate Reviewers with me and both gave the production very good reviews. Almost-8 Akeelah liked Bern best but Almost-6 Kiera preferred Peter. Even though Peter mistreated Bern, she felt that he deserved to be liked because he said “I’m sorry” to Bern. The only criticism was that the play was too short!

In other words, an all-around positive verdict for a very enjoyable albeit "short" afternoon at the theatre. 
Bello by Vern Thiessen translated by Brian Dooley n a co-production by Concrete Theatre and L’Unithéâtre, directed by Mieko Ouchi continues until October 20, 2017 at the Young People’s Theatre, 165 Front Street East, Toronto, Ontario. 416 862-2222. www.youngpeoplestheatre.ca

Thursday, October 12, 2017

ARABELLA – REVIEW OF 2017 CANADIAN OPERA COMPANY PRODUCTION

James Karas

The Canadian Opera Company has made two commendable choices for its 2017 fall season. One is Richard Strauss’s lyric comedy Arabella being produced for the first time by the COC and the other one is Donizetti’s perennial favourite, The Elixir of Love.

A fine cast led by Erin Wall in the name role, Tomas Konieczny as Mandryka and Jane Archibald as Zdenka in Tim Albery’s production goes a long way in making the production highly commendable, but no one can save the creaky and silly plot from producing twitches near the end.

Much can be said and in fact has been written about the social and political milieu of Arabella, the year in which it is set (Vienna in 1860), the time in which it was written (late1920’s) and the date of its premiere in Dresden (July 1933). But it is essentially a simple love story that demands a serious suspension of disbelief.
 Erin Wall as Arabella and Tomasz Konieczny as Mandryka in the Canadian Opera Company’s new production of Arabella, 2017. Photo: Michael Cooper 
Arabella is a beautiful woman who is looking for Mr. Right. She saw a foreigner gazing at her in the street and she fell in love with him on the spot. Mr. Right has been found. Mandryka, Mr. Right that is, has the benefit of being loaded, is on his way to Arabella’s residence and he is smitten by her as well. He saw her picture.

Count Waldner, Arabella’s father, is a retired officer whose main occupation now is gambling while looking for a rich husband for Arabella. The word you are thinking of was not in current use at the time but the Count has an unassailable reason for what he is doing. He is broke.
 
Librettist Hugo von Hofmannsthal adds complications and a sense of urgency to the consummation of instant love, with the consonant need to achieve the riddance of the misunderstandings, and the aversion of bankruptcy. Mr. Right has to be found today, the last day of the Carnival, because there can be no pursuit of marital ambitions after midnight. It is Lent and fasting is imperative.
Michael Brandenburg as Matteo and Jane Archibald as Zdenka in Arabella. Photo: Michael Cooper 
In fairness, Hofmannsthal did not live to revise the libretto and he dies before Strauss had begun composing the music. Nevertheless, Strauss composed luscious, melting and radiant music for the creaky libretto that lifts the opera above the silly plot complications and common farcical elements.

Soprano Erin Wall raises Arabella above some of the traits that one would find objectionable in our heroine. She knows nothing about this man and she will live happily ever after in the forests of Croatia! Sure. Wall’s lustrous voice and assured bearing make us believe Arabella and enjoy a superb performance.

Polish bass-baritone Konieczny plays the rich Croatian landowner Mandryka, a bit of a country bumpkin, perhaps, who loves Arabella deeply even though he knows nothing about her. We accept him as he is, thanks to Konieczny’s resonant voice and his convincing expression of love and ignore the downside.

Soprano Jane Archibald turns in a highly commendable performance as Arabella’s sister Zdenka. Zdenka causes all the complications that take too long to unravel but she deserves our sympathy. She is raised as a boy because girls are high maintenance and she is desperately in love with Matteo (a miscast Michael Brandenburg) who is desperately in love with Arabella. You get the idea.

Baritone John Fanning plays the gambling Count Waldner straight. Perhaps it is the best way to present the foolish man who is pursued by creditors and his solution is to dispose of his daughter to a rich bidder without missing a card game. Very good work by Fanning.

Set and Costume Designer Tobias needs three sets. A hotel suite where Arabella’s family resides, a ballroom and the hotel lobby for the final act. The hotel suite is aggressively gray, with no wall decorations and a sofa and a chair for furniture. The semicircular panels are turned around to create a lighter gray scene for the ballroom. And similar work is done for the final scene which is lit more brightly for the happy conclusion. The sets are simple and functional and eschew extravagant opulence. Waldner is broke, after all.

Patrick Lange conducts the COC Orchestra in this musically rich opera with a flawed libretto.
_________________

Arabella by Richard Strauss opened on October 5 and will be performed seven times until October 28, 2017 on various dates at the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts, 145 Queen Street West, Toronto, Ontario. Tel:  416-363-6671. www.coc.ca

Monday, October 9, 2017

NORMA – REVIEW OF 2017 LIVE FROM THE MET BROADCAST

James Karas

The Metropolitan Opera is back for its twelfth season of transmissions of operas from New York to the world. The broadcast of Norma is the 110th production that they have sent to people who may never visit (or afford a seat) at Lincoln Centre.

This season’s opener is a new production of Bellini’s masterpiece directed by David McVicar with an all-star cast conducted by Carlo Rizzi. The result is opera at its best.

The vocal centerpiece of the production is soprano Sondra Radvanovsky, a singer in her prime reprising a role that she has mastered. This Norma, like Radvanovsky, is a mature woman, facing major conflicts. She is a religious/political leader who must decide between war and peace with the occupying Roman army while dealing with fundamental betrayal - by her of all that she stands for with the Roman Officer Pollione and by him of her in favor of the younger priestess Adalgisa.
 Sondra Radvanovsky in the title role of Bellini's "Norma." 
Photo: Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera
Radvanovsky rises to the vocal and dramatic demands of the role with superb mastery. Her rich and velvet voice conveys Norma’s conflicts, her maternal love, anger and pain in the face of treachery and, finally, redemption through self-sacrifice.  The apogee of Norma is no doubt “Casta diva” and Radvanovsky summons all her powers in her performance. But did she add an “e” between casta and diva? The “a” of casta does not flow into the “d” of diva smoothly without what sounded like an e in between.

The mellifluously-voice mezzo Joyce DiDonato portrays the young priestess Adalgisa. DiDonato is perfectly cast. Her Adalgisa is a youthful blonde who shows a bare shoulder that adds sexual allure to vocal splendor. It explains why Pollione is attracted to her (aside from the fact that he is a jerk) and abandons Norma, the mother of his children and a woman who has risked and betrayed all for him.

Tenor Joseph Calleja has a clarion voice and a heroic manner and he makes an ideal Pollione, a man who is interested in himself only.       

David McVicar’s new production deserves plaudits for originality, intelligence and brilliance. We start with the forest where the Druids meet by the scared oak tree to hear Norma’s decision on war and peace. But as the curtain goes up we see soldiers carrying corpses on stretchers. The peace treaty between the Romans and the conquered Druids is not holding up and we understand why the latter are eager for war.

When Norma ascends the platform to address the crowd, she reaches down and takes the hand of Adalgisa, her protégé, friend and, eventually, traitor. During “Casta diva” Adalgisa joins Norma on the platform. Marvelous touches all.
  A scene from Act I of Bellini's "Norma." Photo: Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera
The scene changes to Norma’s dwelling. The set with the forest and sacred oak trees is raised and underneath it we find Norma’s residence made from the roots of the oak tree. There is a bed on which we see the children and this is Norma’s and Pollione’s lair. A simple but brilliant connection.

With the domestic scene and many other touches, McVicar directs our attention to and emphasizes the human drama as much as the political and religious issues between the Romans and the Druids. Radvanovsky and DiDonato portray flesh and blood women more than public figures in a barbaric age.

Give victory laurels to McVicar, Set Designer Robert Jones and Costume Designer Moritz Junge.

Carlo Rizzi conducted the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra in a crisp and superb performance of Bellini’s music in an overall stunning production.
___________________

Norma by Vincenzo Bellini with libretto by Felice Romani was transmitted Live in HD from the Metropolitan Opera on October 7, 2017 at the Cineplex VIP Don Mills Shops at Don Mills, 12 Marie Labatte Road, Toronto Ontario M3C 0H9 and other theatres. Encores will be shown on November 4, 6 and 8, 2017 at various theatres. For more information: www.cineplex.com/events